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Water Retrieval by Norway Rats: Behavior as Deduction

Abstract

The origin of behavior consistent with effective ("optimal") policies is an important topic in behavioral biology. In many cases, novel behavior patterns that emerge in unfamiliar situations are based on "trial and error" learning guided by rewards and punishments. The present work shows how an appropriate novel response canemerge full-blown in response to new contingencies if the situation has generic featuresthat can be recognized. This work is concerned with object retrieval, i.e., carriage of valued objects to a place of safety by Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus (Berkenhout); Rodentia: Muridae). Experiment 1 shows that selective retrieval of objects containing water over dry objects of the same material can occur immediately when rats are made thirsty; it is unlikely that this is a specific adaptation, since the opportunity to retrieve water in this way would rarely arise under natural conditions. Experiment 2 shows that without initial exposure to both objects under ad lib conditions (where the retrieval preference was for the dry objects), a process of trial and error is apparent as thirsty rats learn to select the appropriate object. It is argued that if object retrieval behavior is linked to a generic incentive feature and features such as wetness are receded into this general term, then appropriate object retrieval can be generated by a kind of deductive process. This type of generalist strategy would appear to be highly adaptive, in part because the usual tradeoffs between specialist and generalist strategies may not apply.

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